Thief: The Gaming Everyman

My relationship with the Thief games will apparently forever be a complicated one. I've never been able to make a final decision about any of the games in the series and (spoiler alert!) things haven't changed much with the latest installment in the franchise.

The First-Person Shooter genre has been crowded with copy-cat macho war fantasy shooters ever since Doom solidified the genre in 1993. Because of this, Thief was a welcome change of pace that caught many gamers (myself included) off guard. Instead of running and gunning, you had to rely on your wits and skulking with just a bit of clobbering guards thrown in for good measure.

It was incredible. I quickly found myself mesmerized with how well the advanced graphics (for the time at least) and the light meter mechanic immersed me in the world. I found the world to be well crafted and amazingly realistic. That is, right up until the point that I went into a dark crawlspace and encountered a spider as big as my face.

You see, in my mind’s eye, I had put myself into “Realistic Story Mode.” The Thief development team had done so much to make me feel like I was playing in a simulation of a realistic world that I had a bit of a shock when I was caught off guard by an entirely unrealistic enemy. The disparity between realism and three-foot spider immediately killed the immersion and sucked me out of the experience. It appears that immersion killing circumstances are still an issue with the Thief franchise. But before we get to that, let’s talk about game consoles.

Sneaking Around

Game consoles have become surprising similar to PCs in the last few years, especially so with the current generation of boxes from Sony and Microsoft. However, despite all the similarities and shared architecture between modern consoles and PCs, designing games for a console has a very particular set of design constraints. Without getting too far into the technical and economic specifics, it’s sufficient enough to say that, when it comes to level design, console games need to have smaller or less complex levels when compared to their PC counterparts. The good news is that this helps with overall game compatibility and minimizes the work needed to get new console centric titles onto the PC. The bad news is that it puts developers in a position where their design choices are limited by the comparatively slower evolving hardware of game consoles as compared to the faster-evolving PC hardware market.

What does this have to do with the current Thief title? Unfortunately, Thief suffers from this type of “console first” level design and the environment just doesn’t feel very immersive because of it. You can see the evidence of these design decisions all over the game. For example, the way the town is segmented into medium sized areas punctuated with loading screens in between just screams "console memory limitations". As does the small “move the lumber” mini-game they force you to play as you shuffle your way into the next area. 

It's a stall tactic. A distraction. It's an attempt to keep your mind preoccupied with some activity while the system loads the next area "seamlessly" in the background. It's the same thing that developers have been doing since the days of Resident Evil on the original Playstation. Don’t get me wrong. It’s an excellent idea and from a high-level design perspective, it works well. I just don’t feel that it works well on the PC because, in an ideal situation, map loading minigames wouldn’t be necessary.

Another similarly clever loading screen "design trick" involves opening windows. There are many windows in this fictional town, but very few of them can be opened. That’s very disappointing and seems like a missed opportunity. Of the windows that can be opened, they are divided into two types: zone transitions and loot rooms. Some of the windows that you can open just act like doors that lead you to different sections of town for some bizarre reason. Some of the windows let you into buildings populated with side quests and NPCs for you to practice your stealth techniques, and those sections of the map feel very well done. But unfortunately, there are quite a few windows that lead into simple one room apartments with one or two token cabinets with valuables in them that just scream “filler content”. 

Water arrows are good for extinguishing torches

Now there's nothing wrong with these little "tricks of the trade". They are standard practice on game consoles. But in an era where games like Grand Theft Auto gives even console gamers seamlessly loading open worlds, it smacks of apathy. You can tell that they didn't put their heart and soul into it. It's like when parents wrap Christmas parents for their baby's first Christmas. They say to themselves: "Well, little Johnny won't even remember this Christmas, and he won't be opening presents by himself, so there's no need to wrap any of these gifts. Why waste the energy?”

Perhaps the devs could have done better but figured, "Meh. This is good enough. We've implemented every single feature on our checklist. After all, It was approved by the focus studies and the “Fun Committee" by the minimum 6 to 4 vote, so we're in the clear.

“Why waste the energy?” You can almost hear this phrase echo through the dark, musty streets of the game’s city. You can hear it when the townsfolk mumble the same generic lines of dialog over and over again with no variation. You can hear it in the lethargic conversation in every cutscene. (You can even hear it in the repetitive townsfolk who occasionally parrot their dialog during the cutscenes because QA testing is expensive). You can see "Why waste the energy" in the bland character upgrade system. You can see "Why waste the energy" in the bizarre glitchy NPC AI. You can see "Why waste the energy" in the convoluted and cliched storyline.

Ultimately, that how I felt when playing this game. "Why waste the energy?". Sure, the graphics are good enough to merit the AAA quality label, the sound effects also. The controls work well enough to get the job done without major complaints. Realistically, the storyline isn't any worse than your typical Triple-A title and content-wise, the game is probably just about as long most Triple-A titles in the Action/Adventure genre peer group.

This game isn't bad, but it's just not good. It's no better than any other typical Triple-A title in its category. It's a middle of the road entry in a sea of mediocre titles. It's a gaming everyman. It's like brand store Mayonnaise and paper plates: not fancy, but they get the job done.

Nobody ever recommends store brand mayonnaise to their friends and people usually don’t buy it because they like it, they just buy it because it’s “good enough”. It's just what you get while you're at the store looking for ingredients to make potato salad for the potluck at work. You need something to fill a need but don't want to spend a lot of money in the process. And that’s how I feel about this game. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, but I wouldn't warn them against it either if it's on sale. They might say "Hey, I just picked up this game, is it any good?" and I'd say "Meh, it's alright." Then they'd ask me "If you were to rate this game, what would you give it?" and I'd think about it for a long moment and then say "I don't know." because what I was thinking to myself was "Why waste the energy?"re